In renaming the road, Arlington was following Alexandria, where another portion of Route 1 lies; in 2018, the city council there unanimously voted to change the name of its stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway. Arlington’s leaders would have acted sooner, but, because Arlington is a county, not a city, it wasn’t clear whether they could do so without approval from Virginia’s General Assembly. And so they were stymied until March 2019, when the state attorney general issued a legal opinion that said Arlington could bypass the legislature. “It felt great,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey told reporters in September. “We are at a point now where we don’t have to have these monumental signs hanging over the streets of Arlington.”
But soon after the change, some drivers in Arlington noticed that when they typed a Richmond Highway address into Apple Maps, the app kept redirecting them to Richmond Highway in Alexandria. By contrast, Google Maps — the most widely used navigation app, with about 150 million monthly users — began employing the new name in January 2019, almost nine months before it went into effect.
This problem persisted for several months on Apple Maps, the third most widely used navigation app, with about 20 million monthly users. (As of press time, it will take you to Richmond Highway in Arlington, but only if you also type “Arlington.”) The news didn’t exactly stop traffic. A comment on a Sept. 10 story about the glitch on the hyperlocal site ARLnow.com summed up the public reaction: “Way to bury the lead! People actually using Apple Maps is a bigger story here.”
Still, the incident points to ways in which maps, even in our digital age, can struggle to keep up with changing political realities on the ground. Satellites, after all, are indifferent to whether naming a highway after a Confederate leader in the early 1900s was a form of intimidation at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was spreading nationwide.
In Virginia, the idea of a major artery named for the first and only president of the Confederate States of America was the brainchild of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which originally envisioned a transcontinental road with that name stretching from Virginia to California. The 1900s and 1910s were banner years for such acts of reverence, coinciding with a spike in construction of monuments celebrating Confederate soldiers and leaders. In 1922, at the behest of the UDC, the Virginia General Assembly named Route 1 — from the 14th Street Bridge to Clarksville, near the border with North Carolina — Jefferson Davis Highway. The UDC never fulfilled its vision of a continuous cross-country Davis byway, but today multiple Jefferson Davis Highways — also named at the behest of the UDC — are scattered across the country.
The tech giants say they are not trying to make political statements with their navigation apps. But sometimes, that can’t be helped. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014 during a period of political unrest, Google’s and Apple’s maps continued to show the Black Sea peninsula as part of Ukraine. Then, this past November, TechCrunch reported that the identification had shifted: When using Google Maps or Apple Maps in the United States, Crimea appears unlabeled — not officially part of Ukraine or Russia. And when Russian users open Apple Maps, Crimea is shown as part of their country.
I asked Google and Apple how street names are updated in their navigational apps. An Apple spokeswoman told me via email: “It is Apple’s objective to be as proactive as possible where changes are planned to occur to ensure Maps reflects the real world as accurately as possible.” The spokeswoman went on: “Apple works with local [departments of transportation] and municipalities to develop a tracking and monitoring process for when changes are planned to occur. Once Apple is made aware of the development, the company will make edits and adjustments.”
A Google spokeswoman offered a similar response: “Google Maps uses a number of different authoritative data sources (public and commercial) and imagery references (Street View and satellite imagery) to provide accurate and up-to-date information on the map. We also rely heavily on our Local Guides and Google Maps user communities to share fresh tips and input on new developments.” (Nothing like communicating with Big Tech, right?)
In reality, the process is imperfect. Representatives from both Apple and Google did make an effort to get in touch with Arlington County officials to ask about the timing of the name change, much to the relief of Eric Balliet, a spokesman for Arlington County’s transportation division. He says that while he’s relatively easy to find on the Internet, identifying the right people to alert at Google and Apple is not. “At the time I did not know how to find them, so I’m glad they found me,” he explains. But Apple appears to have dropped the ball, at least in this case.
Other locales have also been navigating the transition away from Confederate street names. When the city commission in Hollywood, Fla., voted in 2017 to change the names of streets honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Bell Hood to Liberty, Freedom and Hope, respectively, municipal officials contacted Google to update the names in Google Maps. Hollywood spokeswoman Joann Hussey says the city worked through its account manager, who handles advertising on Google. That combined with city staffers putting in edit requests — an option available to users through Google Maps — ended up doing the trick.
“We did find small sections of the streets that didn’t get changed right away, but we did the same process and they were updated,” Hussey says. “I can’t recall exactly how fast it was, but it didn’t seem to me like it took that long.” (Hussey says the city didn’t bother contacting Apple, which adopted the new names on its own.)
In Atlanta, Google Maps and Apple Maps both display United Avenue, which in 2018 replaced Confederate Avenue. And in Austin, they show Azie Morton Road, named after the only black U.S. treasurer, which replaced Robert E. Lee Road in 2018.
But don’t try entering Richmond Highway in Arlington into MapQuest, which still uses Jefferson Davis Highway. I asked MapQuest why, but the company didn’t return my requests for comment. Perhaps they couldn’t find my address.
Andrew Zaleski is a writer in Maryland.